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LETITIA TYLER: THE FIRST OF THREE FIRST LADIES WHO DIED DURING THEIR HUSBAND’S TENURE

Three American First Ladies died, compared to eight US Presidents who expired while president. The three are Letitia Tyler, Caroline Harrison, and Ellen Wilson. Two died from the delayed complications of childbirth while Mrs. Harrison was a victim of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Letitia Tyler was a most obscure First Lady. Little is known about her and no correspondence of hers has been located. She died in the White House in September 1842. “She had been the victim of paralysis for the four years previous, but with exemplary patience had borne its sufferings.” Her husband John Tyler was a Southern plantation owner, the master of many slaves, and a prominent Virginia democrat politician. John had been a Virginia governor, and for convoluted political reasons, he, a Democrat, was selected to run as vice president together with General William Henry Harrison, a Whig, the presidential candidature in the 1840 national election. The slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” won the contest. Tyler planned to remain at his Virginia home to tend to his ailing Letitia.

President Harrison, an elderly man for the time, gave a long winded Inauguration address in the Washington rain. As a soldier, he forswore appropriate protective clothing, he developed pneumonia, and he died. Thereby, John Tyler became the first vice president to succeed to the American presidency upon a presidential death.

The debilitated Letitia sequestered herself in a White House bedroom and made but one public appearance in Washington. Her daughter-in-law, actress Priscilla Tyler Cooper became the social hostess during the first part of the Tyler administration. Letitia had borne eight children during her marriage to John. Most likely her strokes resulted from pregnancy induced hypertension in the era prior to anti-hypertensive and modern obstetrical care. Another stroke was the cause of her death.

The president mourned his wife’s demise….but not for long. A bare six months later, the randy Tyler proposed marriage to Julia Gardiner, thirty years his junior. Julia delayed but eventually agreed to the wedding; she served as First Lady for a brief eight months. In his retirement the ex-president fathered seven additional children with his fertile second wife. He was to busy to campaign successfully for re-election.

 

Lud Historian
ludmhist@comcast.net
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